“I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
– Mark 1:8
Not long ago I saw a picture of a Pandemic baptism. The mother was holding up her baby while the pastor stood about eight feet away next to the font and aimed a squirt gun at the baby. So, ten points for creativity during the pandemic!
I wonder what the writer or writers of the Didache would have thought of that. The Didache is a small book of instruction for the Christian faithful written around the year 100. It was called the Didache, meaning The Twelve, because it was assumed that the teachings in it were handed down by the twelve apostles. Here’s what the it says about baptism: “And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water (running water). But if you do not have living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot in cold, in warm. But if you have not either, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.” It seems clear that the Didache calls us to adapt as circumstances dictate, so maybe in these circumstances where we are required to maintain physical distance to help stop the Corona virus, the writer of the Didache would be just fine with a water pistol baptism as long as it’s done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Some people want to insist that the only valid baptism is by immersion. They point out that our verb to baptize comes from the Greek word baptidzo, which means “to immerse.” They’re right about that– baptidzo does mean “to immerse.” But it’s also the word that’s used to describe sprinkling dressing on your salad. And as the Didache makes clear, three splashes of water on the head in the name of the triune God is adequate if that’s what you’re equipped to do or if that’s what circumstances dictate. It’s not the amount of water that matters, it’s the power of the Word of God in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
But let’s stick with the idea of immersing for a moment. In Matthew 28:19 Jesus says, “Go make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them—immersing them—in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” If we simply reduce that to a formula for a baptismal ritual, I think we are missing the entire point of what he was calling us to do.
Jesus is calling us to make disciples and be disciples who are immersed in the life and love, the eternal relationship, of the triune God. Jesus is calling us to dive deep into that relationship with the Trinity and to draw others in with us. At the same time, Jesus is calling us to enter into a deeper relationship with humanity, with all peoples. All nations. Panta ta ethne it says in the Greek. All the ethnicities.
When Jesus was baptized by John at the Jordan, it was both an incarnational and a trinitarian moment. Jesus, fully human and fully divine enters into the water, immerses himself into the physical reality of this world, accompanied by the Holy Spirit and with the Father’s voice of affirmation ringing in his heart. He immerses himself into all the joys and beauty and intricate complexity of the earth and at the same time into all the suspicion, harshness, competition and misunderstanding. He immerses himself into water, the element that is essential to sustain us and can also kill us, the element that can enrich us with a bountiful harvest or destroy us with chaotic storms. He immerses himself in life as we live it.
He rises from the water to begin his ministry of proclaiming the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven, to teach us in the middle of our chaotic lives about God’s boundless grace and endless love, and to show us that there is a pathway through the chaos. And he calls us to follow, to enter the mystery with him, and bring others along with us.
Baptism reminds us that we are enlisted in a cosmic drama and that the stakes are high.
These are the questions we ask before we profess our faith in the rite of baptism:
Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?
They sound archaic and mythic, these questions, but they are worth serious thought. They are a clue that in our baptism we are entering into mysteries that are deeper and older than what most of the world is used to observing or thinking about. These questions remind us that there are forces at work behind the scenes, that evil is sinister and insidious and seductive and deceptive.
But this is where we have to be very cautious. We find stories with these “behind the scenes” elements attractive, and if we’re not careful we can easily become paranoid and fall prey to conspiracy theories. We can find ourselves manipulated and dragged down dangerous rabbit holes through lies, rumors, half-truths and misdirection. We can get good and evil confused with each other. Martin Luther noted this in the Heidelberg Disputation when he wrote, “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross call the thing what it actually is.”
We saw how out of hand this can get this week when a mob, misled and spurred on by outrageous claims made by Q-Anon and baseless assertions of voter fraud made by the president and others, attacked the capitol building in an attempt to disrupt the certification of the Electoral College ballots. I’m sure many, maybe most of them believed their cause was right and just, that they were standing against evil. But they had been misled. Manipulated. And so they became tools in an act of desecration.
One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that St. Paul listed in 1 Corinthians 12:10 is the discernment of spirits. Let me ask you—what spirit did you see at work in that riot? I, for one, did not see any spirit of righteousness in a Confederate flag, a blatant symbol of racism being paraded through the rotunda. I did not discern anything holy in a face-painted, shirtless man with horns on his head defiling the sacred chambers of deliberation where our laws are made.
Baptism means we renounce calls to violence. Baptism means we renounce white supremacy and racism. Baptism means we renounce rumor and falsehood. It means we speak truth and name a thing what it is.
Baptism means our hearts break when we see sacred spaces profaned, when we see our common halls of deliberation desecrated by thoughtless frenzy and anger.
Baptism means we work to restore what has been damaged, especially relationships.
To be baptized also means, though, that we swim in a sea of grace. It means that when we lose our sense of self or become too full of ourselves, we have a place to come home to, a loving Abba who reminds us of who we really are, a God who helps us find our true self hidden in Christ.
“The grace of God,” wrote Buechner, “means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”
Baptism gives us identity. It anoints us as children of God and at the same time reminds us that we are siblings in our humanity. It reminds us that we have a responsibility to God, to the world and to each other. Baptism reminds us that our lives are in each other’s hands.
Baptism is not a one-time event. It is a way of life. Baptism is not fire insurance. We don’t baptize babies so that if, God forbid, something awful should happen they won’t go to hell. We baptize them so that they can be immersed from the very beginning in a life where they are always seeing and experiencing the presence of God, ideally within the family of faith—with the community of all those sisters and brothers who have also been given what St. Paul calls “a spirit of adoption.” We baptize adults because it is never too late to begin that new life as God’s child, never too late to become a new creation, never too late to receive that “spirit of adoption,” never too late to be embraced by and enfolded into the family of faith.
In baptism we live in a covenant with God and with the family of faith. The water and the Word seal our vow to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
Baptism means I try to live peaceably with all, so far as it depends on me. It means that I try to bring to the world love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Because we are baptized, we try to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that’s not always easy because sometimes our neighbors are prickly and abrasive and unlovable. Still, we try to love them. We try to understand why they’re prickly and abrasive and unlovable. We pray for them and ask God to heal whatever pain makes them put on such harsh armor against the world or we ask God to break through whatever illusion they’re living under.
“If we are to love our neighbors,” wrote Frederick Buechner, “before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.”
To be baptized is to see the world with new eyes. To be baptized is to see that it is a world of wonder moving through a cosmos full of wonder. To be baptized is to marvel at the astonishing work of God conducting the dance of stars, planets and gravitational waves, to see God as the inscrutable force of intent in quantum mechanics. To be baptized is to see life in all its fullness, the good and the bad, to immerse yourself in it as Christ did, and to love it.
Baptism means you understand that life is a gift, and you have reached out to accept it. In Jesus’ name.